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Orion Crater in color
NASA’s Opportunity rover snapped a picture of its own tread marks as it passed by Orion Crater on Mars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU)

Forty-five years after the astronauts of Apollo 16 rode out on a rover to look over a crater on the moon, NASA’s Opportunity rover looked over a crater on Mars – and sparked a chain of coincidences.

To mark the linkage, Opportunity’s science team named the feature on Mars “Orion Crater.” That pays tribute to the Apollo 16 astronauts, who named their lunar module Orion. It’s also the name of the future NASA spaceship that may help astronauts get to Mars someday.

Orion Crater is about 90 feet wide and thought to be no more than 10 million years old.

“It turns out that Orion Crater is almost exactly the same size as Plum Crater on the moon, which John Young and Charles Duke explored on their first of three moonwalks taken while investigating the lunar surface using their lunar rover,” the Planetary Science Institute’s Jim Rice, a member of Opportunity’s science team, said in a NASA image advisory issued today.

While Young and Duke explored the Descartes Highlands for three days in April 1972, Ken Mattingly orbited the moon in the Apollo command module, christened Casper.

Rice sent Duke the panorama of Orion Crater, assembled from imagery that Opportunity’s Panoramic Camera captured on April 26.

Duke was thrilled. “This is fantastic,” he said, according to NASA’s account. “What a great job! I wish I could be standing on the rim of Orion like I was standing on the rim of Plum Crater 45 years ago.”

Charles Duke on the moon
Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke collects samples at the rim of Plum Crater on the lunar surface in 1972. The lunar rover can be seen in the background. (NASA Photo / John Young)

The six-wheeled, solar-powered Opportunity rover has been operating on the Martian surface for more than 13 years – which is way longer than the 90-day primary mission for which it was designed.

Its younger but larger sibling, the plutonium-powered Curiosity rover, is still going strong nearly five years after it landed on the other side of the planet.

Will at least one of them still be in working condition when astronauts start making footprints on Mars? It seems improbable, but based on Opportunity’s staying power, I wouldn’t bet against it.

To get an idea what walking on Mars might be like, pull out some 3-D glasses, click on this picture for a full-size view, and scroll your way across Orion Crater:

Orion Crater
This view of Orion Crater combines images from the left eye and the right eye of Opportunity’s Panoramic Camera. Looking at the image through red-blue glasses will produce a 3-D effect. For best results, click on this image for a full-size view. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU)
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